Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
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Bonfire, the Sequel; or Behind the Scenes of the Charter Review Committee

When I first read The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s brilliant chronicle of decay and decline in New York, I thought of it as a riveting, ribald exaggeration of modern-day urbania. Hyperbole at its most entertaining.

But that was before Mike Milken, the emperor of junk bonds, lost his clothes. Before Mayor Ed Koch’s cohort, Bess Myerson, went on trial for trying to influence a judge. Before the attack on a Central Park jogger by a gang of violent youths. Before Hedda Nussbaum’s tragic tale of marital slavery. Before Tawana Brawley. a black teenager, was extorted by politically motivated militants and coerced into perpetuating an obscene tale of white abuse.

Suddenly life, certainly in New York but closer to home as well, seems to be careening perilously close to the misadventures of Wolfe’s cast of lost souls-led by the greed-ridden Wall Streeter Sherman McCoy, who suffers a spectacular self-destruction. But Wolfe’s other conflagrant characters are consumed with their own importance as well, and so convinced of their invincibility that they take great glee in disregarding accepted rules of behavior. All of this would still seem far-fetched were it not for several recent events. Consider the Cops-Disguised-as-Pizza-Delivery-Men Caper. Or the emotional theatrics that split the school board the night of the unitary status vote. Or the disassembling of Jim Wright. Or the Fair Park surcharge, which Dallas Times Herald columnist Laura Miller saw as eerily reminiscent of Wolfe’s “steam control”-payola for restless minorities.

I felt like I was watching a Bonfire sequel as I tried to piece together what had happened to derail the City Charter revision process on Memorial Day. When the smoke cleared, I saw the charred vestiges of a city desperately and ineptly in search of itself.

To understand why the bitter and abrupt name-calling and accusations erupted, you have to know how well the process had seemed to be going-much to everyone’s surprise. The committee, it’s true, got off to somewhat of a shaky start, with some city council members and minority leaders suspicious of the choice of Ray Hutchison, a longtime Republican politician and lawyer, as chairman. But despite that initial wariness, by most accounts the discussions were proceeding at a progressive gait, with healthy, reasoned, and fruitful arguments being offered on all sides. New alliances were forged in unlikely places. Former City Council member Don Hicks spoke reverently of the “penetrating questions’’ posed by housing activist John Fullinwider. Chairman Hutchison repeatedly lauded the responsible guidance of Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb. Attorney Lee Simpson, who had made a bid for the chairmanship himself, offered high praise for the stewardship of Hutchison. Many of the Anglo members of the committee have said that they came in with preconceived notions of their task-notions that changed with the flow of testimony. At least some of the minorities seemed to be moving the same way- toward a middle ground.

The process, in effect, concerned itself mostly with finding that middle ground between the two extremes going in-that is, those who would keep Dallas’s governing system exactly as it is (eight single-member districts with three council seats and the mayor elected at-large), and those who basically mistrust any at-large system. It appeared that a system with ten single-member districts and tour regional “super-districts” with the mayor elected at-large, stood the best chance of attracting a consensus.

But then the political games began. Like the scene from Wolfe’s novel, when a staged protest in Harlem happens only after the local news crew arrives, the posturing started. A plan apparently was hatched by two grass-roots political leaders-School Board Trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, and Hispanic attorney Domingo Garcia-to attempt to discredit and isolate any committee member who seemed to be moving toward the compromise plan. And that included African-Americans Pettis Norman and Joyce Lockley, and Hispanic Joe May.

The plot hinged upon Norman’s following orders to propose a vote on a system that advocated twelve single-member districts and the mayor at-large. But instead, Norman made a motion to delay the vote until more demographics could be analyzed. At that point Gilliam jumped up and passed a note to Hutchison, claiming that Norman had “not made the motion he was supposed to.” That tipped Hutchison off to the scheme, and apparently angered him so much that he moved that the committee adjourn “subject to the call of the chair.”

Some have charged that Hutchison called for the adjournment for another reason as well-not because he feared a racial division, as he claimed publicly, but because he himself was stuck on the 10-4-1 plan and he feared its defeat.

Whichever scenario is true (personally, I think there’s truth in both), that motion, upheld by a majority of the voting members, led to the flurry of accusations and charges and countercharges and calls for resignations and press conferences and motions to reconvene that followed. All, of course-just like in Wolfe’s microcosmic Big Apple-in the glaring eye of the press.

Translation? Some activist saboteurs pushing selfish political agendas tried to subvert a process that wasn’t perfect, but was proceeding far more smoothly than any of us had a right to expect. A crusty ol’ lawyer smelled some familiar tricks and called their bluff. And as usual in our tainted atmosphere, an ugly situation worsened, and once again hopes for peace plummeted.

The most obvious victim in this whole mess is Pettis Norman, who had the guts to refuse to be cowed by Gilliam and Garcia and is now being hung out to dry in the African-American grass-roots community. But he’s not the only one. We’re all victims of Dallas’s age-old power struggle, which has festered in its unfairness for so long that it’s spawned layer upon layer of distrust. Too many people-white, black, and brown-don’t want peace. They want revenge. Sherman McCoy can tell you about that.